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Must-watch games on the 2022 college football schedule

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It's never too early to get a look ahead to the 2022 college football schedule, not with how many important and impactful games there are to be played.

Last season saw two first-time teams make the College Football Playoff, and the 2022 season could find another batch of new contenders to make the final four again.

National championship favorites will get challenged early in the season while would-be elite teams get an opportunity to make a statement right away.

With the College Football Playoff selection committee placing a heavy emphasis on strength of schedule and quality of opponents, schools are starting to open up their non-conference slates to get better teams on their calendar as early as possible.

Must-watch games on the 2022 college football schedule

Utah at Florida

Utah has a chance to get the Pac-12 back into the College Football Playoff rankings.

When: Sept. 3

Where: Gainesville

What to expect: Usually, the SEC dominates in these kinds of early season, non-conference games, but this one isn't an automatic for the league and Florida. First-year coach Billy Napier brings a lot of hope and proven recruiting success to the Gators, but his first opponent is one of the preseason's more trendy picks.

Utah is defending Pac-12 champion despite losing four games and is coming off one of the most exciting Rose Bowl games ever.

It lost by three to Ohio State, but the Utes brought back quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas as the core of a very productive offense that can move on the perimeter. If you want to see an SEC power lose at home early, this could be your year.

Notre Dame at Ohio State

Ohio State has been a fixture in the College Football Playoff rankings since winning the first-ever CFP national title.

When: Sept. 3

Where: Columbus

What to expect: Two of the biggest brands in college football playing an on-campus opener, both with a ton of returning talent, and both likely to be in the top 10 preseason rankings and playoff contenders coming into the season.

Marcus Freeman — an Ohio State alum and former defensive back — coaches his first regular season game with Notre Dame hoping to start things off on the right track against one of the toughest opponents in the nation.

OSU fielded the No. 1 offense in America last season and, though it loses wideouts Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson, it still returns Heisman finalist quarterback CJ Stroud, lead rusher TreVeyon Henderson, and wideout Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

The opener will also give us a lead on how well the Buckeyes' defense — a unit that struggled in losses to Oregon and Michigan in '21 — has improved under new coordinator Jim Knowles, especially against an Irish team bringing in arguably the best offensive line in the nation.

Georgia vs. Oregon

Stetson Bennett led Georgia to a College Football Playoff national championship and a No. 1 spot in the rankings in the 2021 season.

When: Sept. 3

Where: Atlanta

What to expect: The defending national champion against one of the people responsible for that title. Dan Lanning orchestrated Georgia's historically-dominant defense a year ago, and now he returns as Oregon's first-year head coach.

A lot of that unit is off to the NFL, but five starters should return, and given Kirby Smart's aggressive recruiting strategy, Georgia shouldn't be too hard up on finding replacements. That, plus nine returning starters on offense, including quarterback Stetson Bennett and star tight end Brock Bowers, and the Bulldogs are easy favorites to repeat as SEC East champions at the very least.

Lanning heads an Oregon team that should be in the run for the Pac-12 title again, returning plenty of talent on both sides of the ball. Auburn transfer quarterback Bo Nix heads the Ducks offense now, and he brings plenty of experience against Georgia — but no wins, and that may not change this season, either.

Miami at Texas A&M

Texas A&M comes into the 2022 college football season looking to make waves in the SEC and playoff race.

When: Sept. 17

Where: College Station

What to expect: Another year, another ton of hype for the Aggies, fresh off signing a legendary recruiting class and apparently on the verge of finally throwing some elbows in the SEC and making a run for the College Football Playoff.

To get there, A&M will have to slog through a noteworthy non-conference schedule, including an early home tilt with what should be an improved Miami team. First-year coach Mario Cristobal is a proven recruiter and winner and has put together a legitimately great support staff.

Tyler Van Dyke returns at quarterback after throwing for almost 3,000 yards a year ago with 25 TDs and six picks. He didn't have a turnover in seven games and the Canes went 5-2 in that stretch. Overall, just eight combined points kept The U from an undefeated mark in ACC play in 2021.

Texas at Alabama

Texas football cheerleaders at a college football game in the Big 12.

When: Sept. 10

Where: Austin

What to expect: Finally, an on-campus game between two college football superpowers. Sure, one is on top of its game — Alabama has won six national championships since 2009 (when it beat Texas) — and the other is one, let's say not quite "back" yet. But this is a major marquee game set to kick off in one of the sport's best venues.

Alabama will be its customary self, losing major NFL talent, but retaining a bevy of stars including Heisman winning quarterback Bryce Young and Will Anderson, college football's leader in sacks and TFLs a year ago.

Add in some major transfers, like running back Jahmyr Gibbs and wideouts Jermaine Burton and Tyler Harrell, and this offense should be humming early. Bama also brings back up to eight starters on an elite defense and signed star LSU transfer corner Eli Ricks.

Texas returns bruiser Bijan Robinson at running back — an 1,100 yard rusher with 11 scores in '21 — and Xavier Worthy at wide receiver. And we could finally see 5-star quarterback prospect Quinn Ewers throw a pass in competition after he transferred in from Ohio State. That's a 1-2-3 punch that Texas can get some returns from.

Florida State vs. LSU

Scenes before an SEC college football game at LSU between teams in the Top 25 rankings.

When: Sept. 4

Where: New Orleans

What to expect: Two years removed from winning the College Football Playoff and going 15-0, LSU has won just 11 games total. Enter Brian Kelly, the former Notre Dame coach who bolted for the SEC in a major offseason bombshell move.

He inherits a roster long on potential, but short on results and in need of some major surgery in the secondary, offensive line, and at quarterback.

Winning or losing this game won't define Kelly's tenure at LSU, but it can't help but set the tone for things to come. A loss here, against a Seminoles team that is 8-13 under Mike Norvell, and he'll be under a very critical eye going forward.

Jordan Travis returns at quarterback for FSU after a 15 TD, 6 INT showing last season, including a five-game stretch in which he didn't throw a pick: the Seminoles went 4-1 in those games and Travis accounted for 13 all-purpose touchdowns. He could be a game-changer in this situation.

Oklahoma at Nebraska

Oklahoma made four straight appearances in the final College Football Playoff rankings.

When: Sept. 17

Where: Lincoln

What to expect: After watching the hapless Cornhuskers play to a seven-point loss on the road against a loaded Oklahoma last season, this year's rematch is definitely worth watching. With all the major changes affecting both schools over the offseason, this one can genuinely go either way.

Nebraska lost nine games a year ago, but all by single digits, including against the likes of OU, Michigan, and Ohio State. Now it brings on transfer quarterback Casey Thompson from Texas and OC Mark Whipple, who helped engineer Pitt's eventual ACC title with Kenny Pickett at the helm.

OU hired Brent Venables as head coach after Lincoln Riley left for USC, a move that should ensure the Sooners play quality defense for the next several years.

Venables brought in Jeff Lebby to call this offense, which, after it scored transfer quarterback Dillon Gabriel, should be one to watch — Lebby and Gabriel worked together at UCF when that team was a top 10 offense in 2019.

Arkansas at BYU

arkansas football bumper pool

When: Oct. 15

Where: Provo

What to expect: You have to hand it to BYU, which continues to play tough schedules every year against national opponents. That's the case this season, too, including what should be a must-watch date with SEC West upstart Arkansas.

KJ Jefferson — one of the SEC's top quarterbacks a year ago — will return, but he won't have star Treylon Burks, a thousand-yard receiver in 2021, to lean on. He does get Oklahoma transfer Jadon Hazelwood, a former 5-star recruit who had seven TDs and 736 yards in his career with the Sooners.

BYU lost quarterback Zach Wilson last year, but still won 10 games against that tough schedule, and now brings back QB Jaren Hall, its top two receivers, most of its offensive line, and almost all its defense.

Both teams in this game will be coming off tough matchups — the Razorbacks against Texas A&M, Alabama, and then Mississippi State, and the Cougars against Notre Dame in Las Vegas.

USC at Utah

Scenes at a college football game featuring the USC Trojans.

When: Oct. 15

Where: Salt Lake City

What to expect: This should be the first game of the season where we really see what Lincoln Riley was able to do with USC's roster.

Having transfers like Caleb Williams, Jordan Addison Travis Dye, and Mario Williams will help move this offense along, but the Trojans were one of the worst defensive teams in college football a year ago, ranking 89th overall.

Utah brings back its offensive core with starting quarterback Cameron Rising and running back Tavion Thomas returning in what could be the game that decides one side of the eventual Pac-12 championship.

Texas A&M at Alabama

Alabama linebacker Will Anderson is arguably the single greatest player in college football, at any position.

When: Oct. 8

Where: Tuscaloosa

What to expect: A&M was a four-time loser a year ago, but also beat the No. 1 Tide and just signed arguably the great haul in college football recruiting history. Now it comes into a prove-it year with a mandate to finally push its way to the top of the heap in the SEC and make a move for the conference title and playoff.

Winning this game is vital to that project, and would move the Aggies from a could-be threat in the West to the front-runner — provided, of course, they win their other games.

An added bonus of this matchup in T-Town is the explosive feud between the teams' head coaches after Nick Saban claimed that A&M "bought every player on their team" and Jimbo Fisher going on an all-time rant defending his program and himself. This one is personal for the Aggies.

Clemson at Notre Dame

Notre Dame football quarterback Tyler Buchner has a chance to bring the Irish closer to a College Football Playoff berth.

When: Nov. 5

Where: Notre Dame

What to expect: Last time Clemson went to play under the eyes of Touchdown Jesus, it was the No. 1 team in college football — and lost. It won the rematch, in the 2020 ACC title game during the virus and then both teams lost in the CFP semifinal.

Both are potential playoff teams once again, although the Irish are playing the more difficult schedule. Either way, this game should play a direct role in how the eventual College Football Playoff rankings shape up at season's end.

Michigan at Ohio State

jj mccarthy michigan

When: Nov. 26

Where: Columbus

What to expect: Always one of the must-watch games on the college football schedule, The Game brings plenty of intrigue after Michigan broke its eight-year losing streak to OSU en route to a Big Ten title and first-ever CFP appearance.

But the Wolverines lost a ton of the production that helped get them there last fall, including on the defensive line and at running back. Ohio State returns solid offensive pieces and should be much better defensively, setting up what could be an end-of-the-season matchup between top 10 ranked rivals both looking for a berth in the Big Ten championship game and a playoff spot.

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